Is Your Story’s Concept Broken?

Every story begins with an idea. The idea may come to you while listening to a song, driving a car, or reading a newspaper. You might be the kind of person who gets a dozen story ideas a day, or maybe they come to you rarely.

The question is, how do you know if your story idea is a good idea? How do you know if it will really lead to a good story?

Here are a couple of clues:

1. Is your idea original? As a contest judge, I get to see thousands of stories a year. Many of them are roughly the same story told over and over again. For example, I get stories about “brain transfers” a lot. It might be a Freaky Friday kind of story, where two people switch bodies, or it might be a person getting his memories downloaded into a machine, or it might be a person getting his memories downloaded into a younger version of himself. The question is, do you have a unique take on this idea? Have you considered the idea more deeply than others?

If your idea is not original, if you’ve seen it time and time again, then your story will be weak at its very core. I think that you know what I mean. If you watch television cop shows, you’ll often see shows that seem just like every other cop show. You know, “The good cops are chasing some nasty drug lord who is completely unoriginal and uninspired.”

That doesn’t mean that the story can’t be written beautifully, it just means that at some level, it will feel cliché.

2. Is the idea for your conflict scalable? I’ve said before that there are only three rules to plotting a story: escalate, escalate, escalate!

When your character is faced with a problem, it needs to get worse by degrees. If you’re writing a murder mystery for example, the killer may either strike again and again, or he may try to strike at the protagonist’s friend and family. That’s how we escalate a murder mystery.

If you’re writing a romance, then as the protagonist falls in love, obstacles to the romance must come into play, barriers that seem increasingly insurmountable.

When you’re writing a thriller, the dangers to the protagonist must grow in an orderly fashion. The protagonist must first think, “Ah, we’re in trouble,” and try to resolve the problem, only to discover that the problem is bigger, more dangerous, and more complex than he’d imagined.

The point here is that we’re not dealing with just one idea for your story. Let’s say that you have a tale in which a wandering star smashes into our solar system, is captured by the sun, and becomes a binary star system, so that the earth slowly gets fried. That might seem like one idea, right?

But your protagonist will have to deal with it by degrees:
“Ah, a sun is coming at us! What do we do? Let’s pray that it misses.”
“Oh, great, it missed earth, but got captured by the sun. Now the two stars are swirling out of alignment!”
“Mercury and Venus just got sucked in! But we’re safe.”
“Hey, has anybody noticed that the average global temperature just rose by 20 degrees Celsius in the past week? What do we do? Maybe we should move to Greenland.”
“Nah, it’s too hot. Let’s evacuate and move to Mars!”

In other words, every story isn’t made up of just one idea, it’s an interplay of ideas. You might have a great idea for a character, but you’ll also need an intriguing setting. You might come up with a neat twist on a big conflict, but you’ll need to figure out the steps on how to introduce the conflict, how to deal with false perceptions, and ultimately how to deal with the conflict itself—and whether the protagonist will deal with it on an external level, or learn to adapt, or simply run away.

In other words, your story will fail or succeed not on the basis of one idea, but on the strength of dozens of them. So ponder your story well!


One of my past students, R.W. Wallace, recently published the story she worked on for my Story Puzzle and Story Mastery 1 online writing workshops! Check out The Red Brick Cellars: A Tolosa Mystery on Amazon. It is available in print and ebook formats.

A murdered mayor. A second body reduced to skeleton and dust. The public display so horrific that the police are baffled.
Everyone assumes uninterested heir Louis Saint-Blancat will finally settle down and focus on the politics of Toulouse, France. Louis becomes the center of attention in the press while his mother and sister pressure him to follow the family’s political tradition when all he wants is to track down his father’s killer, then return to his globe-trotting lifestyle.
Determined to ferret out the story behind the perplexing assassination that took place at the very center of Toulouse to advance her career, struggling English journalist Catherine Marty finds an unlikely ally in Louis.
Will the two sleuths discover what is lurking beneath the apparent congeniality of la Ville Rose?

Since my last newsletter, I’ve had more sign-ups for my writing workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is happening in seven weeks. Please don’t wait to save your spot. There will only be 14 attendees total. This workshop is more in-depth than any of my past prose writing workshops. You can learn more about it or see any of my other live workshops here.

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